Hail fair wanderer! Step into the world of Chinese mysticism, as brought to you by Japan. Saiyuki is based off the ancient tale, Journey to the West, a story of Chinese folklore in which four companions must travel to India on their mission to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures. But this is Japan, and instead of four, there are six companions, which sort of destroys the symbolism of Mind, Heart, Body, and Soul of the original, but gets the job done nonetheless.
The story does take place in China, however, and it follows the exploits of a young monk named Sanzo Hoshi, who has to travel across the land while gathering companions who will help him on his travels. Place this story in the same package with a Tactics Ogre/Final Fantasy Tactics-style battle system, gorgeous artwork, an excellent anime intro (despite the cheesy song), and you've got the latest strategy RPG from Koei: Saiyuki.
Graphics - Putting Gum in the Cracks
Saiyuki's a few years old by now and it's just getting released over here. Due to this, some of the graphics feel a bit dated, reminiscent of the FFT era, but with less impressive spell effects. Although the sprites are nice, the anime cut scenes and artwork incredible, and the general animation quite well done, one cannot help but notice that this is an old game. There are bits and pieces that remind you of this fact and although they're not glaring, they can ache at times.
Fortunately, once you put your expectations of cutting edge graphics aside, you'll probably full-heartedly enjoy Saiyuki's look and just forget about the age. The best part of the graphics has to be the anime introduction and cut scenes throughout. The animation is nearly flawless and full of vibrant colour and emotion. This certainly doesn't look like old anime to me and stands head and shoulders above most of the competition in that regard. However, I'd suggest switching your sound to OFF during the intro, the music is horribly laughable.
As for the spell effects, these are good but they're not great. Some of them carry on way too long and just get boring, while others are bland and repetitive. Thankfully you can turn them off via the options, or choose to view them only when they're first cast, and never again afterward. Of course you could always just leave them on, but you might get a wee bit irritated after awhile.
Music - The 80's meet Chinese Classical
I'm not sure how to describe the music. Most pieces are extremely well done, capturing the feel of ancient China and high adventure. But some, especially the anime introduction, feel like they were done by Milli Vanilli with a hangover. If you've seen the intro to the North American version of Dragonball Z, with the current theme song, you'll understand why I'm complaining. It's not unbearable to listen to, but think of it this way: if you're alone, you'll be laughing. If you're with friends, you'll be embarrassed. Otherwise the musical score does well, ranging from upbeat battle themes (with that Chinese classical tone), to relaxing melodies to sooth the mind and soul. All in all, a well-rounded set of compositions.
Sound - A Solid THWACK! On Thy Brow
The sounds are pretty solid, delivering just the right feeling for every staff blow and sword slice. The only effect that gets a bit tired after awhile is the weretransformation one, but even that's tolerable. Good stuff.
Loading - YAY!
The loading for Saiyuki is merciful, almost saintly. No more waiting for every bloody screen to load, or for the computer to actually make up its mind (see FFT). Thank the dukes of gamedom at Koei for this one.
Gameplay - Rotating the Camera... ARGH!
The gameplay isn't bad, and in fact it's quite good. The menu system is laid out clearly and in such a way that it doesn't leave you guessing where things are (see FFVIII).
Control in battle is everything it should be, giving you all the management up front and at the ready... except for one thing: the camera. This irked me in FFT, and heck in most games that allow you to rotate the view and heighten the angle. It never seems to be in the right place! Although for some battles this is fine, I find myself struggling to find exactly where I want the camera to be. It's an irk that's minor, but an irk nonetheless.
Otherwise, equipment management, item management, battle control, etc., are all laid out particularly well. A word of warning however: there is no way to resurrect anyone during a battle. That's right, if your party suffers a casualty, you aren't getting him back until after the fight, and if Sanzo dies at ANY time, game over, no arguments. This is a realistic change from the resurrection methods used in every other game, and it actually makes for a challenge.
The big specialty during battle is not magic or summoning (although this is darn close), but Werechanging. Every character (except Sanzo) has a wereform: a larger, burlier, stronger version of themselves. It gives them new powers and a lot more HP with which to brutalize the enemy. This might sound a bit unbalanced, but it's quite well implemented. Only one character can be in wereform at a time, and each character has levels on his or her wereform. As you use the wereforms, they grow stronger and level up. If you leave them alone, you'll find yourself at a disadvantage. It's like taking care of a Pokemon on steroids and with a lot more 'cool' to them. After a few turns as a werebeast, the effect fades and the character is back to normal.
Story - No More Brain Strain!
The story of Saiyuki - as I mentioned in the beginning paragraph - is taken from the Chinese mythological story, Journey to the West. Sanzo Hoshi (Tripitaka or Hsuan Tsang in other translations) has to travel to India to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures under orders from Bodhisattva Kannon, one of the sovereign deities of Japan. Along the way, he comes across companions who help him accomplish his goals and protect him from the dangers en route.
Now, this is actually a historical account, in part. There was a monk named Hsuan Tsang from a Tang monastery in China who went to India for the Buddhist scriptures. How much of the rest of the story is true is anyone's guess.
Your first companion will be Son Goku, a half-monkey, half-man monster of sorts. Now before you write this off as a Dragonball Z rip-off, I'll clear the air; Dragonball Z is a story based upon Journey to the West, and Son Goku is the Japanese translation of Sun Wu Kong, a Chinese mythological hero from the story.
In the original, Sun Wu Kong was a mischievous monkey king who invaded heaven, upset the general order and peed on Buddha's hand. For that, Buddha trapped Sun Wu Kong under his big toe for 500 years until Hsuan Tsang came along. Sun Wu Kong would go with Hsuan Tsang to repay his bad karma and serve him loyally as both protector and council. This holds true in the Japanese version, in which Sun Goku is trapped in a rock for 500 years by Buddha, until Sanzo Hoshi comes along to redeem him.
Other characters along the way include Cho Hakkai and Sa Gojo, pig and fish monsters respectively. They look generally human, until they're in battle and become their wereforms. Now this is where the Chinese and Japanese stories tend to part ways. In China, the story had only four companions traveling together. They symbolized Soul (Sanzo Hoshi), Mind (Son Goku), Body (Cho Hakkai), and Emotions (Sa Gojo). This is totally lost in the Japanese version and sadly so. It rids the story of the strong philosophy of the original and makes it feel a bit empty (for me anyway). But otherwise the story is quite enjoyable and easy to get through. Any good RPGer will enjoy it.
Overall - Well Done!
I've seen better come out of Koei, but I've also seen worse. Saiyuki is a good buy if you've got the cash, but my advice is rent it first so you know what you're getting into.